What exactly do we mean when we call someone a rebel? Is it a person who, when faced with adversity, stands up for what they believe in? Someone who fights injustice? Or simply a person who refuses to accept the unfair nature of their surroundings? With many of the rebels we’ve featured so far in this series, as well as most of those still to come, those struggles come against the establishment; be it the monarchy, government, social class or, in many cases, the police.
The story of ‘Nipper’ Read’s life, as well as his own uniquely rebellious legacy, is one of perspective. As the man chiefly responsible for putting Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the infamous brothers who ran London’s organised crime scene during the 1950s and 60s, behind bars, he was constantly fighting a war on two fronts. The first, those two East End gangsters whose involvement in murder, armed robbery, arson, protection rackets and assault had made a mockery of the British judicial system for almost two decades. The second, the very system in which Read found himself working: a Metropolitan police force as ineffective at stopping the Krays as it was rife with corruption.
Having been rejected by the Nottinghamshire Combined Constabulary on the grounds of being too short, Bulwell-born Leonard Ernest Read was forced to head south, seeking employment with the Metropolitan Police in 1947. Fresh out of serving as a Petty Officer in the Royal Navy during World War II, as well as a brief stint working at Player’s cigarette warehouse, Read had excelled academically, particularly in drama, and developed a talent for boxing, picking up his first medal in 1937. It was at Grundy’s boxing club that he picked up the moniker ‘Nipper’ owing to his diminutive stature.
At 5’7”, his early days were spent drawing on the acting experiences he’d gained at school, as Read was tasked with working undercover - often in disguise – with the assumption being that no one could possibly believe that anyone as short as he was could be a policeman.
His rise through the ranks was fast and impressive, working on the periphery of the Jack Spot case, before taking a more integral role investigating the Great Train Robbery. Not only was it to be Read’s first introduction to major crime, but it exposed him to the frustrating nature of infighting, corruption and ineffectual police work that plagued the Met at the time.
His reputation as a solid, reliable and inscrutable detective was steadily growing when Read was made Detective Superintendent of the Met’s Murder Squad in 1967, tasked with the primary objective of bringing down the Krays. Read was justifiably insulted when, while being offered the promotion, he was asked if there was any reason why he should not head a team to look into the East End brother’s illegal activities. The implication was clear: Read was being offered an easy out if, like many of his colleagues, he was on the Krays’ payroll.
Read knew the extent of the Krays’ criminal enterprise as well as the brothers themselves, but what he lacked was proof
Often glamourized by the media in films, books and songs, the legacy of Ronnie and Reggie Kray has been doubtlessly romanticized. From their early beginnings as nightclub owners, they embedded themselves within the post-war London underworld, becoming kingpins of organised crime at the head of an enterprise known as ‘The Firm’. Decades before John Gotti changed the face of the Italian-American mafia by appearing on the cover of Time magazine, the Krays were celebrities in their own right. Welcoming the likes of Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Diana Dors into their clubs, they even found the time to pose for legendary photographer David Bailey. Ever conscious of their public image, and with one eye firmly focused on cementing their own mythological status, they’d help neighbours who were in financial trouble, donate money to Repton Boys Club, where they’d started out as young boxers, and always, always openly respected their dear old Mum.
But their appeal was much the same as all outlaws: they represented a section of ourselves that most of us are too frightened to express. They lived outside of the system; they took what they wanted, when they wanted; they wore Savile Row suits with customized cufflinks and never, ever let anyone tell them what to do. To many, they were modern-day Robin Hoods, but instead of stealing from the rich, they took from all, and never burdened themselves with having to give anything substantial back to the poor.
But the protection they’d so far received from their celebrity status, legitimate enterprise smokescreen and the close-knit, community-focussed East End that loved and feared them in equal measure, was to disappear after their involvement in the murders of George Cornell and Jack “The Hat” McVitie.
At no point did Read underestimate who he was up against. Ever fearful that his investigations would be leaked to the Krays, he established an office away from Scotland Yard at Tintagel House on the other side of the Thames. Showing a perspicacious knack for his work, his caution was soon justified when a hired gunman was caught at Shannon Airport on his way to kill him.
Read knew the extent of the Krays’ criminal enterprise as well as the brothers themselves, but what he lacked was proof. He was dealing with a generation of working-class Londoners who had been bombarded with the “loose lips sink ships” messaging of World War II, and to who the Krays had become local legends. They were far from perfect, but to many the brothers represented safety and a semblance of balance. They were their own people, and their dirty work was mostly done behind closed doors. Ostensibly at least, the East End felt safer with the Krays in charge of things.
In amidst a global pandemic, his death drew little media attention, let alone the horse-drawn excess bestowed upon the brothers he put in prison
Focussing on their fraud activities, Read’s investigative work was meticulous and all consuming. But, after Ronnie shot and killed Cornell, a member of the rival Richardson gang, at the Blind Beggar pub in March 1966 and Reggie butchered McVitie with a carving knife in front of a room full of people nineteen months later, Read finally had his route in. With infinite patience, he was finally able to convince the barmaid that had witnessed the Cornell shooting and the woman in whose flat the McVitie murder had taken place to give evidence in their trial. Read even drew upon his acting skills once more, posing as a vicar to visit the Krays’ underling Albert Donoghue in Brixton and persuading him to give evidence in a suspected third murder – that of Frank Mitchell, known as the “Mad Axeman” who the brothers had helped escape from Dartmoor prison before killing him when he began to threaten them.
While the Mitchell killing was a dead end, the evidence given for the Cornell and McVitie killings was enough for the brothers to be given life sentences in prison, where they would spend the remainder of their lives (although Reggie was released two months before his passing on compassionate grounds).
From Tom Hardy films to Morrissey lyrics, the Krays continue to play an enormous role in the cultural fabric of Britain and, to many, they’re the epitome of what it truly means to be a rebel. Their deaths in 1995 and 2000 were followed by resplendent funerals, with horse-drawn carriages carrying their bodies through crowds of mourners filled with well-known faces including actors Barbara Windsor and Jamie Foreman (whose own father - known as “Brown Bread Fred” - had helped dispose of McVitie’s body).
But ‘Nipper’ Read is the true rebel of their story. Remaining steadfast to his belief system and never bowing to threats on his life or the corruption rife within his line of work, he was a constant outsider, even to the police force who owed him so much. Not only because he was a Nottingham lad operation in London, but being obstinate, obsessive and meticulously neat, he didn’t belong to the rough and tumble, hard drinking types that dominated the Met in that era.
Read passed away in April of this year after contracting COVID-19 while in hospital just one week after his 95th birthday. In amidst a global pandemic, his death drew little media attention, let alone the horse-drawn excess bestowed upon the brothers he put in prison. Remaining modest about his role in bringing the Krays to justice until his death, Read likely wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
‘Voices of Today’ is aimed at inspiring Nottingham residents to get creative and represent their experiences or perspectives on activism, protest and rebellion in a number of ways, including poetry, drawing, singing, acting, dance, creating a protest banner or something different altogether.
You can submit your artistic take on Nottingham's history of activism, protest and rebellion at @nottmcastle using the hashtag #VoicesofToday